The Darkest Day Bloody Badajoz

 

“Let any man consider this and he must admit that a British Army  bears with it an awful power.” [1]

 

 Robert Knowles would use this term in his memirors. This quote is specifically related to the siege of Badajoz and its sacking. What happend during those few days would become one of the most infamous events in the history of the British Army.

[2]

The Siege of 1812 was not the first attempt at taking Badajoz. Two previous attempts were made in 1809 and then in 1811, both were called off due to French reinforcement column approaching from the Madrid Garrison. What we gather from accounts at the time is an interesting letter from Lord Wellington  to Colonel Beresford stating “of the difficulty of breaching”[3] This letter signifies the real difficulty of taking Badajoz. The reason why this is stated is due to the defence nature of the fortress. It is not simply a wall as some might think. The nature of the construction of the outer star fort provides a real challenge for any potential assailant. Nine Bastions  made up the defences of the star fort; each segment consisted of five to six and a half foot ditch between a scarp and counter scarp . So in effect the glacis which is the slope towards the wall would obscure the ditch. In reality this type of defensive styling had not changed since the sixteenth century.

[4]

These defences consisted of cannon, musket and occasionally a primitive form of anti-personnel mine. Especially when the breach was made, French garrison Commander General Armand Phillipon would utilise Chevaux-de-Frises and planks of wood along the breaches with twelve inch spikes and cannon covering the breach exits, which would provide devastating grapeshot. The most interesting of all would be the decision to fill the ditch with water, which would be a strange throw back towards medieval fortifications.[5]  With this we can see that the original letter could foresee the sheer scale and potential casualty list that could accumulate if an assault was to take place.

The offensive nature of the British offensive in 1812 made it crucial for Badajoz to fall. Even though some historians argue that the siege may not have been necessary; it has to be recognised that this is with the benefit of hindsight.  We need to look at the British assault plan to get some context towards the movement of the siege. The plan was to construct the trench system near the St Rouge Road along to the River Guadiana. This would allow the Batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery , to attempt to form a practical breach in the fortresses defences. On the issue of defence it was not simply the French confined to the fortress itself. The British forces  had to assault fort San Christobal, Tete de Pont, Fort Pardeleras and Fort Picurina. These were commonly held by a small French force of cannon and French Voltigeur’s. These were taken very quickly and the initial barrage on Badajozs walls began on the 25th May and it would fall to the night of the 6th of April to actually begin an effective assault on the fortress.

The assault would be made on three sections of the Fortress . The main British assault force would assault the greater breach at the Saint Maria bastion, which consisted of the Light Division  and the 4th Division under Wellington’s direct command. Picton’s 3rd Division would use ladders to scale the Castle and create a secondary attack on the St Vincent bastion.  At the breaches we can start to see the state of mind that would affect the besiegers once inside the fortress. A Times newspaper reporter who was imbedded with the army, this was surprisingly quite common at the time, stated that: “Of all the awful sights I have ever beheld, the attack on Badajoz was the most so. It began at ten at night, when the enemy threw up a racket, and afterwards several fire-balls. As soon as our troops approached the breaches, tremendous explosions took place; and as the night was very dark, you may form to yourself some idea how great and awful was the effect.”[6]  You can begin to see the effect that the initial assault would have on the troops at the breaches due to the defensive setup that General Phillipon had constructed. It became hard for the army to effective get a lodgement within its walls and the casualties would begin to mount. “Let any man picture to himself this frightful carnage taking place in a space less than one hundred square yards. Let him consider that the slain died not all suddenly, nor by one manner of death; that some perished by steel, some shot, some by water, that some crushed and mangled by heavy weights, some trampled upon, some dashed to pieces by the fiery explosions.” Sir William Naiper’s words sum up the mounting dead and injured at the breaches, and when you add in the French taunting: “Come into Badajoz”[7], it is initially reasonable to understand a sense of frustration and anger among the besieging troops that no progress was being made. The best way to describe this is from a Sergeant in the Forty Third light infantry division assaulting the St Maria breach. “As the battle grew hot, I caught the contagion that burned all around, and in this desperate and murderous mood advanced to the breach of Trinidad.”[8]  George Simmons would go onto show the ferocity of the French defence . “The French cannon sweeping the breaches with a most destructive fire. Lights were thrown among us….that burned most brilliantly, and made us easier to be shot at…I had seen some fighting, but nothing like this”[9] . The fighting and its aftermath would be ‘nothing likes this’.

It is common knowledge, even to the modern day period, that anger needs to be vented for psychological well being. This helps us to understand the anger of so many fallen and injured at the breach would have a huge physiological impact on the army. Ian Fletcher agrees with my hypothesis with regards to the detrimental value of anger  but also on the combined issue of the presence of alcohol. “They had endured a miserable last 21 days in the trenches and had suffered terribly getting inside the town. Once there, however, their anger found vent and they dissolved into a dangerous mob of drunken disorderly soldiers.”[10] Ironically it was General Picton’s troops that managed to take the castle rather than the troops at the greater and lesser breach. What is also interesting to note is that the ladders used for the siege were too small and a lot of troops had to assault by scaling the last part of the wall.

When an effective lodgement had been made, the French General Phillipon promptly surrendered once the castle was captured. The French garrison was allowed to leave un- molested. What followed became a venting of anger as described by the anonymous sergeant who said that there was “desperate and murderous mood”[11] That really described the atmosphere of the men that assaulted the breaches and the castle, and really begins to explain the reasoning for the outpour of anger and violence.

What we can clearly see is a disproportion of violence dependent on rank and class. It may seem clichéd that people from different classes act differently in certain situations, and we can see this through firsthand accounts at the time. This point is best described is Robert Blakeney who arrived in the town in the second wave at the Saint Vincent breach.

“When the savages came to a door which had been locked or barricaded, they applied the muzzles of a dozen firelocks against the part of the door where the lock was fastened, and fired off together into a house and rooms, regardless of those inside Men, Women and children were shot for no other reason than pastime; every species of outrage was publically committed and in a manner so brutal that a faithful recital would be shocking to humanity.”[12]

The account describes the situation that he found himself in. Ironically though it was his role to actually maintain discipline and order, but if we look at the town planning map[13] the maze of streets and alley ways shows how hard it was for officers and Non- Commissioned officers to regain control as there was no central town square to funnel the troops into. This allowed basic command and control to break down.

We do have one piece of evidence from a soldier who took part in the sacking, that of Edward Costello who even admits the mistakes he made during events that night. “I must confess that I participated in the plunder, and received about 26 dollars for my share.”[14] The money he did obtain was ironically by accident as he was injured after the assault, he describes how he became involved in the sacking. “We then turned down a street which was opposite the foregoing scene, and entered a house which was occupied by a number of men of the Third Division. One of them immediately, on perceiving me wounded, struck off the neck of a bottle of wine with his bayonet, and presented it to me, which relieved me for a time form the faintness I had previously felt.”[15]  The extract goes onto the next day but we can see that Edward Costello’s actions are credited to alcohol, which in turn attributed to his actions that night.

 

 

The sacking went on for many a few days, and this is known through the private correspondence of Captain JL Blackmen of the Coldstream Guards in letters to his parents dated the 8th April 1812. “Should the advance we our found for him- Lord Wellington is still at Badajoz.”[16] We begin to see the sheer scale of the problem that was created by the sacking. At the time this letter was written the main body of the army was still at Badajoz trying to stop the sacking, which was proving to be more difficult than at Ciudad Rodrigo due to the town’s natural make up. When order was eventually restored no punishments were given out, only the threat of punishment, and this is where I think the problem lies. William Grattan would agree with my statement as he openly states his disgust. “Many men were flogged, but although the contrary has been said, none were hanged-yet hundreds deserved it.”[17] It is crucial to understand that the lack of punishment at Ciudad Rodrigo caused this problem and I suspect that William Grattan was contemplating this at the time, however  it may be the fear of  death that brought the men out of the city after they have ‘let off steam’. This did not end the darkest day of the British army; the camp women had their part to play as well. “An officer of the king Germans Legion observed around 200 women pouring into the town when it was barley taken to have their share of the plunder and was ‘sickened when saw them coolly step over the dying, indifferent to their cries for a drop of water, and deliberately search the pockets of the dead for money, or even divest them of their bloody coats’.”[18]  The women were feared by the Spanish locals more so than the men. Mainly due to the conditions that the women faced and the possibility of becoming a widow very quickly after becoming married it was not common for women to cover the battlefield in search of loot, clothing and food to help support them-selves before they had a chance to re-marry. So in that sense it was not just the men that took part in the sacking the armies’ women had their part to play too


[1] Lieutenant Knowles Robert. The War in the Peninsula (Stroud: Spellmount Military Memoris 2001).,pg87

[2] The Times, Monday, Apr 27, 1812; pg. 3; Issue 8588; col B

[3] Letter From Wellington to Colonel Beresford 1809

[4] Profile of the European fortress wall from the 16th century.

[5] Fletcher Ian. In the Hell Before Daylight the Siege and Storming of the Fortress of Badajoz 16th March- 6 April 1812 ( Gloucestershire: Spellmount Military 2008).,pg62

[6] Capture of Badajoz.The Times Saturday, Apr 25, 1812; pg. 4; Issue 8587; col D

[7] Fletcher Ian. Wellington’s Regiments: The Men and their Battles from Rolica to Waterloo 1808-1815 ( Staplehurst: Spellmount Military 1994).,pg67

[8] Anon., Memoirs of a Sergeant late in the Forty-Third Light Infantry Regiment (Kessinger Publishing 2010) .,pg168

[9] Esdaile J Charles. Peninsular Eyewitness The Experience of War in Spain and Portugal 1808-1813 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword 2008) .,pg208

[10] Fletcher Ian.  Wellington’s Regiments: The Men and their Battles from Rolica to Waterloo 1808-1815 ( Staplehurst: Spellmount Military 1994).,pg69

[11] Anon., Memoirs of a Sergeant late in the Forty-Third Light Infantry Regiment (Kessinger Publishing 2010) .,pg168

[12] Boy in the Peninsular War. The services, adventures, and experiences of Robert Blakeney, subaltern in the 28th .,pg273

[13] Spanish Planning Office Town Map of Badajoz

[14] ^IBID.,pg274

[15] Rifleman Costello. The Adventures of a Soldier of the 95th (Rifles) in the Peninsular & Waterloo Campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars (Great Britain: Leonaur 2005 ).,pg273

[16] Personal Letters of Cpt JL Blackman Coldstream Guards, April 8th 1812

[17]Holmes Richard. Wellington the Iron Duke (London: Harper Collins 2003).,pg161

[18] Venning Annabel. Following the Drum, The lives of Army Wives and Daughters (London: Review 2006).,pg160

 

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